A team of astronomers has found faint visible “echoes” of three ancient supernovae by detecting centuries-old light reflected by interstellar gas clouds hundreds of light-years removed from the original explosions.
P. Marenfeld and NOAO/AURA/NSF
This artist’s concept portrays the appearance of a “light echo” from a supernova that exploded in the nearby galaxy called the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), as seen from Earth more than two centuries after the original explosion. The echo is only part of a ring, because to be seen it must intersect with existing clouds of interstellar dust far from the explosion, which are not spaced equally within the large volume that the supernova light continues to expand into. Located 160,000 light-years distant in the southern constellation Dorado, the LMC is considered the closest large galaxy to Earth.
P. Marenfeld and NOAO/AURA/NSF
This graphic shows a schematic of the geometry of the light path that creates a supernova light echo, shown as if the process could be viewed from the side. An echo occurs when the Earth is at one foci of an imaginary ellipse and the supernova remnant is at the other, with dust clouds that happen to be located at the surface of the resulting ellipse. When the light from the supernova reaches these dust clouds, it is reflected toward an observer located at Earth. To this observer, the reflection appears as an arc; this arc would be a full, circular slice through the ellipse (as viewed from Earth) if dust were equally distributed around the full volume of space that that the supernova light is traveling through.
Located in a nearby galaxy in the southern skies, the three exploding stars flashed into short-lived brilliance at least two centuries ago, and probably longer. The oldest is likely to have occurred more than 600 years ago.
Just as a sound echo can occur when sound waves bounce off a distant surface and reflect back toward the listener, a light echo can be seen when light waves traveling through space are reflected back toward the viewer.
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